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2008: Why America Is Ready for a Third-Party Candidate
"The right candidate . . . might be able to drive a bus right up the middle of the U.S. political scene today-lose the far left and the far right-and still maybe, just maybe, win a three-way election."
-Thomas Friedman, New York Times op-ed columnist
There is no doubt that we are at a crisis point in American politics. The American people are increasingly developing doubts about the efficiency and responsiveness of our institutions. And these increasingly deep-seated doubts cut to the very core of our philosophy of governing. As a result, there is a crisis of legitimacy in our democratic system. Polls show it, focus groups resonate with it, and political columnists are reporting it day in and day out. The crisis is due to a lack of credibility in the system itself. There are record levels of cynicism about Congress and the president. Americans lack confidence in both major parties, and believe they are far too partisan; they squabble endlessly rather than working collectively and collegially to solve our most pressing problems, and act as if ideology matters more than the greater good of the citizenry.
As a result, we're where we were in 1992 in terms of the level of dissatisfaction that allows a third-party presidential candidate to emerge. But we're also at a point where the record level of dissatisfaction impacts directly and immediately on the overall functioning and, indeed, legitimacy of our system of government.
Frustration and unhappiness are subjective feelings, and they change all the time. But they are quantifiable feelings nonetheless, and are measured obsessively by research organizations. According to a Gallup survey taken in the middle of May 2007, there has been a sudden plunge in its regularly reported "Satisfaction" index. Only 25 percent of Americans now say they are satisfied with the state of their country. The index has dropped 8 percent in just one month, and is at one of the lowest points ever measured.
Three out of four people are dissatisfied with the way things are going in this country.
"The current 25 percent satisfaction level is very low by historical standards," according to the polling firm. "Since Gallup first asked this question in 1979, the average percentage of Americans saying they are satisfied with conditions in the country is 43 percent."
In June 2007 Gallup reported that the percentage of Americans with a "great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in Congress was at 14 percent, the lowest since the polling organization began taking this measurement-and the lowest of any of the sixteen institutions included in its 2007 "Confidence in Institutions" survey. It was also one of the lowest confidence ratings for any institution tested over the last three decades. The bottom line, concluded Gallup, was that "Americans are in a very sour mood."
David Broder, the Washington Post political columnist, interviewed California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger for an Outlook column published on July 1, 2007. Schwarzenegger had thoughtfully taken the pulse of the people. He said, "People want bold leadership, somebody who is clear in his or her views, who can make tough decisions and who will reach across the aisle to address the important issues- health care, immigration, public safety, climate change, and the rest- someone who has a vision and a plan for the future, well beyond the next election."
He went on to say, "Voters admire you when you are willing to talk about difficult issues. Politicians think you have to be careful when dealing with powerful interests, but really you've got to be daring.
"People are looking for leaders who can bring people together. If the parties don't provide them, then a latecomer can come in from the outside and provide leadership that will work on the problems," he concluded.
In short, we are facing a wide-open contest, ripe for a dark horse, including a third-party or independent candidate.
And if you think this is just a refrain from Ross Perot in 1992, think again.
Here are the results of a series of three Gallup polls, the most recent one taken right before the critical midterm election that turned around the House and Senate majorities in favor of the Democrats. The data show that the United States is now facing a similar level of dissatisfaction to that which it faced before the last two major independent campaigns for president, in 1980 and 1992.
The trend is clear: The voter satisfaction chart (Figure 2) shows that in three years during the past three decades-November 2006, November 1992, and November 1979-the great majority of Americans were unhappy "with the way things are going in the United States." At these peak periods of dissatisfaction with the system, the electorate demonstrated the greatest receptiveness to change. In 1980 we had the "Reagan revolution," along with Anderson's third-party run, and in 1992 Perot reflected voter ire as Bill Clinton ultimately ended twelve years of GOP rule in the White House.
Today, the dissatisfaction level is virtually the same as it was sixteen years ago. Although the government's official numbers show solid and continuing growth in gross domestic product (GDP), public opinion polls suggest something quite different: an increasingly acute economic pinch among many working-class and middle-class Americans. The still relatively high level of the Dow Jones average does not accurately reflect what is going on in the hinterlands, where a substantial number of people struggle in low-paying jobs without health insurance. There are increasing concerns about high energy prices, the stability of the credit markets, and the impact of a falling dollar on the economy.
There are also serious issues apparent when we assess the economic well-being of all but upper-middle-class and wealthy Americans. This crisis has several specific components:
• Adjusted for inflation, real wages are stagnant and the better-paying jobs are hard to obtain.
• Americans fear they will lose their jobs to outsourcing, especially to India and China.
• Voters are concerned with rising costs in almost every area that matters to them: education, taxes, housing, child care, energy and gasoline, and health care.
• The long-term viability of Social Security remains a front- burner issue, as it has been ever since the Democrats raised the issue in the late 1990s and then George W. Bush took it up again after the 2004 election. The burden of retirement has also changed and it is now squarely on the backs of workers-a fundamental shift from past generations.
• The great American Dream of home ownership is becoming more difficult for many to realize. Housing prices have risen dramatically over the past ten years, notwithstanding the current softening of the market. Six in ten Americans say they are not living that dream. And many of those who are not living that dream feel they will never be able to live it.
• Subprime lenders are experiencing an increasing number of delinquencies and foreclosures as homeowners who took out adjustable- rate mortgages are facing higher and higher monthly payments.
Bottom line: Too many people have come to believe the American Dream is harder than ever to achieve and that the political system has largely failed to produce policies that improve their quality of life. Add to this the frustration they feel about America's image abroad, including our inability to solve the Iraq conundrum, and it's easy to understand why so many voters contend that we are a country in crisis and that our leaders are taking us in the wrong direction.
Frustration and unhappiness turn to anxiety and anger-and that's something the media and most politicians are slow to realize. But there's something bigger going on. The American people are clamoring to make a statement not just about individual candidates, but about the system itself.
Data collected by the University of Michigan's American National Election Studies reveals that the voters' trust in the federal government has plunged to historic lows. The electorate has doubts about the everyday issues, and added skepticism about the Iraq War. According to a research paper prepared at the University of Michigan, "The high levels of political alienation are unprecedented because they do not coincide with an economic downturn; instead, they appear to reflect widespread insecurity regarding the federal government's ability to resolve or otherwise cope with major problems confronting the country."
Along with this frustration with their leaders' failure to address their most important concerns, voters also have less confidence in their leaders' ability to solve any of the outstanding problems they do decide to tackle. Further, the American people also have come to distrust what their government is telling them. And according to the Michigan study, they are increasingly "more likely to support independent and third party presidential campaigns. . . ."
Americans sense that, in a changing world, the country's two main political parties are failing to recognize the gravity of our economic ills and seem incapable of providing the visionary leadership so sorely needed. People do not think of the leading Republican and Democratic candidates as "visionaries" or "leaders." They view them as adequate at best.
They see politicians in Washington, Democrats and Republicans alike, reduced to partisan bickering and name-calling, at the expense of substantive discussions about the vital issues we face as a nation. They see the world around them, and the economy they depend on, changing before their very eyes. Yet the parties' debates seem oddly removed from the nation's pressing problems. Instead of debating withdrawal plans for Iraq, our parties became preoccupied in fall 2007 with MoveOn.org's attack ad on General David Petraeus and Rush Limbaugh's comments about "phony soldiers."
A Pew Research Center study released in March 2007 revealed: "By a 62 percent to 34 percent margin, most Americans agree that 'when something is run by the government it is usually inefficient and wasteful'; this is the highest level of cynicism in a decade."
In 1980, when the Republicans took control of the Senate, and when Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter in a landslide, distrust in the federal government reached 73 percent. It had never before exceeded 70 percent. It's worth noting that whenever more than two-thirds of the public no longer believe what their leaders are telling them, then a historic partisan realignment typically occurs.
The 2006 distrust figure was 77 percent, which is close to the historic high-water mark. The Michigan study concluded, "The recent surge in voter alienation is quite dramatic. Just two years ago, in 2004, a bare majority of respondents, or 53 percent, said they trusted the federal government to do what is right most of the time or just about always. . . . Never has NES polling data shown such a dramatic collapse in trust in the federal government." Excluding the last two years, the period that showed the largest decline in trust was between 1972 and 1974, when the country was buffeted by Watergate, a recession, and the end of the Vietnam War. During that two-year period, the trust in the federal government decreased far less than it did between 2004 and 2006.
With trust in government at an all-time low for the last thirty-five years, it is not a surprise that we're looking for new leadership- that is, someone we can trust. Another salient point: The crisis in American politics and leadership is much worse than our elected officials suspect. While the misery index (how people feel about their economic well-being, specifically their jobs and the increasing cost of goods and services) has remained fairly constant, people are more distrustful than ever. According to the Michigan study, "The current high levels of distrust have never before been present during a presidential election year. They are also exceptional because they do not correspond with worsening inflation and unemployment rates."
Other recently collected data support the conclusion of the University of Michigan. Pollster Scott Rasmussen has found that the approval ratings of a number of American institutions-the Democratic Congress, the Republican White House, and the nonpartisan Supreme Court-are all very low and slipping from levels recorded earlier. He has also found that the negative rating of the several leading presidential candidates-both Democratic and Republican-are growing across the board and on average exceeded 40 percent.
As John McCain said during a recent Republican debate, in effect summing up these findings, "The American people no longer have trust or confidence in our government. Our failure at Katrina, our failures in Iraq, our failures to get spending under control. And we've got to restore trust and confidence."
Americans look to third-party candidates when the two major parties appear unwilling or unable to accomplish anything positive. That was true in 1980, when John Anderson was at one point picking up 24 percent of the vote in public opinion polls against Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan; it was true in the late spring of 1992, when Ross Perot actually led in the polls, ahead of Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush; and it is certainly possible for the right candidate in 2008.
Prior to the 1996, 2000, and 2004 presidential elections-and now, as we look toward 2008-about half of all Americans said they would like to see a third party join the Democrats and the Republicans in the political process.
For example, Fox News found that half of all registered voters in America think the formation of a third party is a good idea. The Pew Research Center found that 53 percent of Americans think we should have a third major political party in this country in addition to the Democrats and Republicans. Two separate polls conducted by NBC News and The Wall Street Journal found that slightly under half of all Americans would like to see the creation of a third party to field a presidential candidate. And a WNBC poll found that more than 40 percent of registered voters would be willing to vote for an independent candidate in 2008.
Thus, the polling results from several different sources are in agreement about the nation's views on the desirability of having a third-party contest in the next election. In addition, it is fair to conclude that America's divisive primary nominating system continues to produce Democrats who are frequently too liberal and Republicans who are just as frequently too conservative for the vast majority of American voters. The situation is all the more frustrating to the American people because candidates are forced to take left-wing and right-wing positions to get nominated, and centrists are almost by definition excluded from the process. The fault lies with the way the system currently works. Poll after poll shows that the American people are angry with political parties and supportive of a nonpartisan approach to politics and problem solving.
The intolerance of both political parties is equally clear and destructive.
For example, if you are a Democrat and support positions like school vouchers and free trade, the Democratic left will definitely think you are, at the very least, suspect. If you are not for immediate and complete withdrawal from Iraq, you are completely radioactive. Unless Democrats support left-wing positions virtually down the line and completely rule out initiatives like cuts in entitlement programs, they will have a difficult, if not impossible, time winning their party's nomination for president.
From the Hardcover edition.